It’s a Small World for a Minnesota Model Maker

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Neal James with his 1/3-scale 4 hp Monitor model engine.
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This odd-looking contraption is a 1/2-scale model of a 1918 Maytag “fruit jar” 5/8 hp engine.
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A pair of hot-air engines made by Neal James. They work off the heat from the hand. He scaled down larger hot-air engines, and sells the plans for these two. The greater the temperature disparity between the hand and the air, the faster the engines turn.
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Neal James demonstrates operation of his Huff ‘n Puff hot-air engine.
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This 1/8-scale 4-cylinder Wall C601 model engine is the first model Neal James ever worked on. Neal plans to finish it by this spring.
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This 1925 Briggs & Stratton Model F-H gas engine is a 1/2-scale of a 5/8 hp engine.
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The first model engine Neal James completed was this 1/3-scale Associated 1-1/2 hp engine.
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Top view of the 1/8-scale 4-cylinder Wall C601 model engine that started Neal James in his model engine hobby.
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Neal James built the “Almosta Engine” because he wanted to see what it was like to make an engine from scratch, using scrap cast iron.
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Top view of the 1/3-scale Associated 1-1/2 hp engine.
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Top view of Neal James’ scratch-built “Almost Engine.”
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Neal James crafts quality oak skids to complement his model engines (here, a 1/3-scale 1912 Quincy 4 hp engine model).

Neal James of rural Elk River, Minn., once
played in a band called The James Gang. But today, his “James Gang”
might be the dozens of model engines he has made, including some
from scratch. “I was raised on them,” says the 76-year-old retired
tool and die maker. “My dad was into everything. He had his
blacksmith shop, and a portable feed grinder that we used to take
around and grind feed and a corn shredder that we took around. We
were in the well business together for five years, and then his
blacksmith shop.” And what did all of those businesses have in
common? Gas engines.

A 1980 trip to Rollag, Minn., to the Western Minnesota Steam
Threshers’ Reunion, piqued Neal’s interest in model engines. “It
was the biggest show in the state, so I went up to see what it was
all about, and I sure found out. I saw the small model engines up
there, and I got interested in them right away. I didn’t know they
made anything like that, so I got all hepped up about getting
started on one.” He asked for information, and found out where to
send for kits to make model engines.

As soon as he got the castings, Neal started working on the
small, unscaled 4-cylinder Wall C601 model gasoline engine. “It’s a
freelance kit, with the engine much like that of the Model A
automobile,” he says.

But he had seen an Associated gas engine at Rollag, and when he
found a kit for that one, he ordered it. When it came, he set the
Wall aside, and finished the 1/3-scale Associated 1-1/2 hp model
engine. “It was a little challenging because it was the first one,
but I had a lot of experience machining, so I was able to overcome
the problems.”

Though the Associated model was designed to run, Neal didn’t
start it up for about a year. “I was just so proud of it, I didn’t
want to get it dirty,” he says. “So I set it up to be admired at
shows, and then I entered it in the Sherburne County Fair.” He won
grand champion with that model, and later that year at the
Minnesota State Fair he was awarded a blue ribbon with a rating of
98 points out of 100 possible. “They wrote that it was ‘Beautiful,’
but I lost points because it was a kit.” After that, Neal began to
run the Associated when he took it to shows.

Neal has built 27 engines, including seven gasoline engines. One
of his most challenging projects has been a 1/8-scale 1915 Holt 75
model gas engine he’s working on now. “I’ve worked on that one off
and on for a few years,” he says, “but I’d like to have it done by
spring so I can take it to shows. But it’s time-consuming.”

What makes the Holt difficult is the way it was cast, with the
engine and oil pan as one piece. “You can’t machine the main
bearings through the engine,” he says, “so you have to go in and
file them.” That meant he first had to mill the top of the engine
perfectly smooth, so it was flat and could be used as a point to
reference from. After the engine was fastened to the table, risers
the exact height of the center of the main bearing had to be
clamped onto the table. Then Neal went inside the engine with a
long and very flat file, and filed the main bearings down the exact
height of the risers. He had to come in from both sides of the
engine to finish the delicate work.

“I don’t think the original Holt engine was built that way, but
the model was,” he says. “I know some people have cut the engine in
two so they can machine the bearings, and bolted them back together
to get away from the problem of machining through the inside of the
engine. But I didn’t do that. If you cut it in two, then you’re
taking away metal that you have to add in later with a spacer to
bring back the original dimensions, and it’s just a lot of extra
work. It was work the way I did it, but it would be more work the
other way, I think.”

Another of Neal’s gas engines is a 1/3-scale model of a 1912
Quincy 4 hp engine. “When I first saw the advertisement for that
one, I knew I had to build it,” he recalls. “It just really
appealed to me. It wasn’t a really hard engine to build. There were
a lot of detailed parts to that one, many parts made out of
stainless steel. That’s hard machining, and then you’ve got
machining marks so you have to file and sand and polish until
they’re like a mirror. It’s just time-consuming to get a mirror
finish on all these parts.”

Many of the parts are so small that Neal has to use a magnifier
as he machines them. “My eyes aren’t as good as they used to be, so
I have a visor magnifier and use that a lot.”

Quincys are rare. As a result, Neal’s model is an
attention-getter at shows, Neal says, and it runs well, too. In
fact, Neal’s been offered large sums to part with it, most notably
about 10 years ago when a museum owner from Austria saw the Quincy
and fell in love with it. “But I told him no,” he says. “It took me
a year to build the Quincy, and I don’t want to build another one.
I want to build other engines.”

Another unusual gasoline engine Neal has built is a 1/2-scale of
a 1918 “fruit jar” 5/8 hp Maytag engine. “The original Maytag used
a fruit jar for the gas tank, but I had to find something
half-sized, so I used a little pint mayonnaise jar for the gas tank
on this one.” He says the real machines were built for only a
couple of years, likely because they were dangerous to operate.
“It’s almost impossible to find one of the real ones today,” he
says, “and you’d have to pay a lot to own it. I only know of one
that a Maytag collector has.”

Neal made a cylinder pattern out of wood for the Maytag, and has
sold a number of the cylinders to other collectors. Because Neal
has several other Maytag kits that haven’t yet been assembled, he
already has the needed cylinders cast for them.

Other James gas engine models include a 1/2-scale 1925 Briggs
& Stratton Model F-H 5/8 hp engine, which really appealed to
him when he saw the kit, he says. “A guy from North Platte, Neb.,
built those. I’ve never seen another one outside of this

Neal also has made a couple Monitor engines, including a
1/3-scale of a 4 hp ball hopper Monitor and a 1/3-scale of a 1-1/4
hp Monitor pumping engine. “They were made mainly for pumping
water, and had a pump jack built right into it. That’s the way it
was made. The pump jack is made separate, but the engine has
flanges on it to bolt the jack right up against it.” The little
Monitor was difficult to build, he says, because it has a crankcase
like the Holt, so he had to go through the engine to file the
crankshaft. “It was a little troublesome, you could say.”

Wood grain

One thing that makes Neal’s engines unique is the wood base he
crafts for each engine. “I try to make each one a little different
and unique,” he says. “I start with a basic design and start
working on that, changing it until I’m satisfied with what I’ve
got. I think it adds a lot to the engine. Most people notice a nice
finished base right away, especially women.”

The large Monitor engine, for example, has a wood pulley Neal
put on it. “The real ones had a pressed wood pulley, but this one
is just for dress-up.” Most of the skids Neal makes are crafted
from oak. “It has a large grain that really stands out,” he says.
“It probably takes more finishing than most woods, but it finishes
up so nice.”

Scratching an itch

After Neal had seen dozens of model engines, and built dozens
more, he decided he wanted to build a working model gasoline
engine. “I could just picture what kind of engine I wanted,” he
says, “so I drew up plans from what I had in mind, a little
air-cooled engine with a little throttle carburetor on it.” It has
a 7/16-inch-bore and a 9/16-inch-stroke. Flywheels are 2 inches in
diameter on the “Almosta,” as he calls the engine (his “company” is
named “Almosta Engine Co.”).

He built the one-of-a-kind model from scrap material; cast iron
bar stock taken from old big machinery. “I just used chunks of
that,” he says. “After I had built a few engines and seen a lot of
the larger engines, I wanted to design a real small one, because
you didn’t see many out there at the time.”

Neal built a homemade spark plug for The Almosta. “I made a set
of different size plugs (5/16-, 3/8-, 1/4-, 10/32-, 8/32- and
5/40-inch thread size), and set them in a base. The Almosta has a
5/40 thread on it.” A few years ago, he wrote a magazine article on
how to build plugs. “The larger ones are the take-aparts, like the
Model T spark plugs. They fouled so easily, so you could screw them
apart, clean them up and put them back in, so some of the plugs I
make are like that.”

At times, he’s thought of drawing up plans and making a kit of
his own design to sell. Ultimately, he decided against such an
undertaking. “If you’re doing that, you’re not building engines,”
he says. “I think it would be fascinating and fun, and it wouldn’t
be too expensive, but to have to make all the patterns for the
parts of an engine, the pattern boards and everything, it’s
time-consuming to do all that. I’d rather have engines instead of
the money.”

Neal says the reactions he gets from people are unbelievable.
“That’s what is fun about showing the models, the reactions from
people who see them. It’s just a good feeling.”

For more information:Neal James, 21222
Meadowvale Road N.W., Elk River, MN 55330-8956; (763)

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several
books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372,
400 Caroline Lane, Rockville, MN 56569; e-mail:

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